There are many embarrassing things about being British. There’s our excruciating, prolonged exit from the European Union, for example. Our Covid-19 response has been a mess. Our traditional cuisine leaves much to be desired (as a lifelong vegetarian, I will never understand including black pudding — blood sausage — on a breakfast plate). It’s actually very British to be embarrassed, which is in itself embarrassing. It’s also embarrassing, and British, to talk about things being “very British.” And then, somewhere in the long list of potential embarrassments, is the ubiquitous annual TV extravaganza, the “Great British Bake Off” (or "Great British Baking Show" as it's known in the U.S.)
It’s actually very British to be embarrassed, which is in itself embarrassing. It’s also embarrassing, and British, to talk about things being “very British.”
Now in its 11th season in the United Kingdom, the show has taken on the role of a well-meaning but overbearing parent. Every year, it appears in the metaphorical school playground with bunting, drizzle and Prue Leith’s indescribably posh voice, ready to make the rest of the world think that all British people do is sit around eating cream puffs, fanning biscuits with chopping boards and making prim little remarks about sieves. And while it continues to enjoy an incredibly positive reception, this twee, self-referential show of cliche and euphemism has become more than a little insufferable, congratulating itself every time it acknowledges its own character or breaks the fourth wall.
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That said,“Bake Off” has been around for more than a decade. It would be foolish not to admit that it has become a sort of institution. When the first episode of Season 11 aired in the U.K. on Tuesday evening (it premieres in the U.S. on Netflix on Friday), it attracted a record 7.9 million viewers — three times as many as the prime minister’s speech on the new coronavirus restrictions that immediately preceded it on Channel 4. The national restrictions in the U.K., which have been in place in some capacity since late March, meant that the cast and crew had to form an isolated bubble away from their families to film the show, such was their dedication to the “Bake Off” form.
In America, “Bake Off,” I fear, has become even more symbolic of Britishness than it is at home, though I wonder if its transition from the slightly haphazard amateur talent contest it was in 2010 to the big shiny brand it is in 2020 has slipped under the radar for viewers unfamiliar with the nuances of British culture. (Just for the record, there is literally no good reason for this program to take place in a marquee, or “giant tent” as you might say in the States.) It pains me to think that twee references to cake are making the wrong impression. So, allow me to explain what is just “Bake Off,” and what is actually British.
This new season offers plenty of classic material, the potency of which seems to increase exponentially year on year. What was once an occasional and cheeky reference to a soggy bottom is now a loaded wink to camera. What were once perfunctory tea towels are now a self-aware symbol of country coziness. To the American viewer, all this may seem like genuine British quaintness, but know it is calculated. “Bake Off” may seem innocent, but it knows exactly what it’s doing.
The hallmarks of actual British culture can be more accurately observed in the contestants. Take this season’s bakers. As well as some classic mispronunciations in normal, nonposh British accents — baker Laura affectionately lets slip that her husband thinks fajitas are called “fajjitas,” and Dave makes an “expresso martini” cake — genuine, glorious self-deprecation abounds. After the first episode’s technical challenge, Lottie cheerfully says she was “aiming for the middle of the road, and that’s what I got.” When Linda’s miniature pineapple upside down cakes end up a flat, sticky mess at the bottom of her tins, she doesn’t seem to mind. “Ooh,” she says, happily, “they are a disaster, aren’t they.”
The contestants are given their customary half-hour warning before the end of a challenge, and newcomer presenter Matt Lucas clarifies that he doesn’t mean “half an hour left to live.” Lottie, barely looking up from her cake, says darkly, “wish it was half an hour to live.” For viewers unaccustomed to such abject misery, don’t be alarmed: this is just what it’s like in the U.K.
One of the reasons this show has become more and more frustrating is this transformation into a gross, excessive behemoth of baking.
The standards on the “Bake Off”have been driven up over the years along with its growing popularity — and the challenges have got increasingly difficult. The first episode has always been “cake week,” but the aforementioned cakes have become drastically more complicated. In the show’s first ever episode, bakers could make any cake of their choice for the signature bake challenge, a Victoria sponge for the technical, and a “chocolate celebration cake” for the showstopper. In this first episode of Season 11, contestants have to make a Battenburg, 12 miniature pineapple upside down cakes, and — read this slowly, take it in — a 3D cake bust of their favorite celebrity’s head.
One of the reasons this show has become more and more frustrating is this transformation into a gross, excessive behemoth of baking. But this time, luckily, the final challenge is so utterly ludicrous that inflated standards are popped like a balloon. Just try to look at a grimacing strawberry-and-mint-sponge-Tom DeLonge without laughing. I dare you to see the squat little unfinished cake version of Freddie Mercury and not weep with mirth. Here “Bake Off”has shown its full hand by simultaneously exposing the great heights to which it aspires and letting the slightly crap result do the talking.
I do wonder what the U.K. looks like from the other side of the Atlantic. But when I think about what might stick out — antiquated political ceremony, for one — I remember “Bake Off.” When you watch it, just remember that what seems like the best of Britain is the worst, what seems like the worst is the best, and that each year this show becomes an even bigger parody of itself than the last.
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